January 2024

 As the small caravan had passed through town, Sheriff John had noticed the girl riding in the back of one of the wagons, that also had a young couple and two small children. He noticed she was a pretty child, probably in her early 'teens. He probably wouldn't have thought of her again, if she hadn't reappeared the next morning in another wagon with an older man. She climbed down and walked over to him, while the man went into the general store.

   "We camped just outside of town. Fred came in to get some supplies before we move on. He asked me to come with him."

   "Why did he ask you?"

   "I think he wanted to..."

   "Did you want to...?"

   "No, of course not."

   "Why did he think you...?"

   "I don't know. Probably an older man's dream about a younger girl, but it was just a dream on his part. I came with him because I need to get away from the wagon train, and I hoped you could help me."

   "Get away from your family?"

   "Well, they aren't my family. I've been with them awhile, but my memory's fuzzy, and I don't know why or how long."

   "What makes you think they aren't your family?"

   "I don't look like any of them. Besides, the father and mother are much too young for me to be their child."

   "Brother or sister, maybe?"

   "I don't look like them."

   John thought about that a moment. "Why do you want to leave them?"

   The girl thought about that a moment. "Recently, the father has started to treat me differently. When he looks at me now, I think of someone watching a stove, knowing that a Thanksgiving turkey is just about to come out, deliciously ready to eat."

   John tried not to look at her, but couldn't help it. He thought he could see why the father's attitude was changing. The tantalizing turkey was a pretty good illustration."

   "Won't he come after you, if you don't return?"

   "I don't think so. I think the mother has seen the change, too, and will make it very clear to him that my departure is a very good idea."

   John thought some more. "What will you do if you don't go back?"

   "Well, I'll need to earn some money." She looked him up and down. "Would you like to..?"

   He was shocked. "Definitely not!"

   "Why not? You obviously like looking at me. I've never..., but I think I could..."

   "Why not? One, I don't even know your name..."

   "It's Jo - Jolene."

   "Two, we're not married..."

   "I don't think that's required."

   "Well, it would be for me. That is something that a husband and wife do. Besides, I don't think you're old enough ..."

   "Oh, I'm old enough."

   "Well, that's not exactly what I mean. I mean legally. There are laws that protect young women until they're old enough to know what they're doing, and can make mature, thoughtful decisions. How old are you, anyway?"

   "I don't know, but I'm sure I'm old enough to know that it would be okay if you and I..."

   "Absolutely not!" He made a decision. "Come inside, and we'll think this through. Are you hungry?"

   "No, we ate breakfast before Fred brought me in."

   They entered the jail. It was just like you would think it would be, with a front area with a desk, and a couple of jail cells beyond. However, it was also John's residence, and beyond the cells there was an apartment with a kitchen and a bedroom. He sat them at the kitchen table.

   "Look, Jolene, I won't make you go back. It sounds like you're right about your situation there. I think I have an idea, but I need to work on it a bit. Can I leave you here for a little while? You'll be safe, and there's some food in the refrigerator, if you need a snack. I won't be long, okay?"

   She picked up a book he had obviously been reading - a Western. "I'll be okay."

   John went out, and walked down the street to Mrs. Iverson's boarding house. He did have an idea. He wasn't sure how good an idea it was. Mrs. Iverson saw him coming, and met him at the door.

   "John, what are you doing, showing up so early at my house? Do you want breakfast?"

   "No, June, thanks. I've eaten. I need to talk to you about a problem I have, a girl..."

   "Oh, John, no! You know you have to be extra careful about that kind of thing - your image of the sheriff, and all!"

   "No, June. Thankfully, it's not that kind of problem." He described what kind of a problem it was. "I can't send her back, but she needs money to do anything else. You know there's only one way that a young woman can make ready money around here, and that's..."

   "Yes, John, I know what 'that' is."

   "Well, I don't want her doing 'that'..." He thought his face might be getting a little red. "Well, I don't want any woman to..." He paused, and pulled himself together. "Well, I had an idea that I wanted to try out on you. What if I hired her as my housekeeper?"

   June gave him the fisheye. "Your housekeeper? Are you serious, or are you just trying to make your 'girl trouble' look legitimate? How old is she, anyway?"

   "That's what I don't know, and I don't think she does, either. My knowledge of young women is not great, but I'd say she's fifteen, at the oldest. Maybe fourteen. That's why it's important to do all I can to preserve her reputation..."

   "And your own, I might add. How does having a fifteen year old girl in your apartment as a 'housekeeper' help either of those?"

   "That's why I'm here. What I'm thinking is that I hire her to help me around the jail and my apartment. General cleaning and straightening. Running errands. Cooking for me and my occasional prisoners, if she can cook - well, even if she can't cook, she can do as well as me. I don't know for sure, but I think she's smart enough to read and write and do arithmetic. That could be a help to me with some of my paperwork and reports."

   "Okay, that sounds like it could be a legitimate job. How does that change the living arrangement?"

   "That's where you come in. She lives here with you. I pay her rent as part of her salary. From dusk to dawn, she is with you, and both her and my reputations are safe from scrutiny."

   June thought a moment. "It could work. What does she think about it?"

  "I haven't proposed it, yet. I just told her I had an idea."

  John went back to the jail to tell Jo what he had come up with. She wasn't in the kitchen.  He found her fast asleep on his bed. He stood and stared for a bit. She looked pretty nice there. He nudged himself back to reality, went out to the jail to do some work, and let her sleep.

   When Jo woke, John made his suggestion. She started to counter that, if his bed was just a little wider and a little softer, they might be all right without Mrs. Iverson. She sensed some disapproval, so she backed off, and accepted his idea.

   She moved over with Mrs. Iverson that afternoon. She hadn't brought anything from the wagon train except the clothes she was wearing. John gave her an advance on her salary, and she and Mrs. Iverson bought her some clothes and a few personal items.

   Their arrangement went well. She was a good worker, and didn't need to be told what to do. They discovered she was a good cook (she had no idea where she'd learned), and she got better. She could read, write, and do arithmetic so well that it was clear that - somewhere along the way - she had been given a good education. She never remembered her early life.

   Their relationship stayed strictly a business one. They might occasionally eat dinner or breakfast together at the diner, but they almost never saw one another after work. Jo found a "mother" in Mrs. Iverson - June - and discovered that, in most ways, she was quite content.

    Although everything seemed to be on the up and up, there initially was considerable gossip around town about what the sheriff was up to with "that young thing.” But Jo was clearly under June's wing, and no one had ever seen her and John kiss or even hold hands. (They never had.) Before long, the question became "why isn't he doing something with that pretty thing?" He didn't associate with any other women, so - nobody dared say it! - did our handsome young sheriff's interests run in a different direction? (Remember that this was the Old West, where opinions were strong, and often wrong.)

   About a year after her arrival in town, Jo checked her bank account, and found she had a rather large amount of money. If she wanted to, nothing could stop her from moving on with her life. She considered that for about two seconds, and decided she was right where she should be.

   At just about that same time, John decided that he would build himself a house. He thought he would do a four-room cottage - living room, kitchen, and two bedrooms. He also considered having indoor plumbing. There wasn't anything wrong with his apartment, and he didn't need any extra room, but he just had a yen to do something. He told himself the bigger house would be better if he ever decided to sell.

   He built it by himself, although Jo showed up frequently to help when he needed an extra hand. It was her that suggested he finish it off with a white picket fence around the front. That made good sense for resale, he thought, and he liked the look of it.

   About two years after Jo had come to town, John gave her an extra long look. He said something to himself that would seem very odd to you if you hadn't read this story. He said - and there was a certain wonder in his thought - the turkey is definitely out of the oven! The next day, he bought a ring, and asked Jo to marry him. She said yes, without hesitation or equivocation. They had never held hands, never hugged, never kissed, never said "I love you" to one another, never...

   Well, John found out there was one little hurdle to get over. "John, do you remember the first day we met, and you told me three reasons why we couldn't, and you wouldn't...?"

   He did remember, very clearly. The first objection was that he didn't know her, and the third was that she was too young. That left the second, which was that he had to be married.

   "I would love it to be tonight," she said. "I know we won't have a license, but I think God and everybody who cares know we've been married for some time. We've been together in spirit, we've clearly forsaken all others, and we've never... with anybody else. May we?"

   John wanted to say yes, but he was having a little trouble with his previous stance. What she said was true, but... She decided to lighten the decision. "Think of it this way, John. If you were buying a race horse, you'd want to be sure it could run..." He gave her such a confused look that she laughed. "I'm teasing, John! We get the license, no matter what. May we?"

   He acquiesced gracefully, although he was a little piqued that - even teasing - she could suggest the race wouldn't be run - and won!

   That evening, just at dusk, they entered their new cottage. A while later, Jo happily admitted to herself that she had picked a winner, even if it had taken two years to prove. John decided that Jo had had an excellent idea. At one point, he felt a little twinge. He thought it might be his conscience, but quickly decided that it was just a little sorrow that this first time was over so soon.

   Two days later, most of the town was assembled to see John carry his new bride up the steps of their cottage. At the door, they paused and exchanged a long, deep kiss, before waving to the crowd and closing the door behind them. After a long group cheer, the townspeople dispersed, everyone saying - or thinking - what a lovely young couple they were. A few were very glad to be able to confirm that their previous thoughts about John... Well, there wasn't any need to dwell on that.

    If there is such a thing as "happily ever after," the couple in the cottage behind the white picket fence were making a good attempt at it.


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 © Sanford Wilbur 2024